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Treating asylum seekers well is in all our interests (2011)

Asylum Asylum Seekers and Refugees

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The following opinion pieces have been published by the President and Commissioners. Reproduction of the opinion pieces must include reference to where the opinion piece was originally published.

Treating asylum seekers well is in all our interests

Author: Catherine Branson QC, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission

Published in The National Times, Thursday 23 June 2011.


Too many people are in immigration detention facilities around Australia and they've been there way too long.

I can say this because my staff and I have been visiting detention facilities around the country for the past two years. I can also say that it has been a deeply disturbing experience for me personally.

As we come towards the end of Refugee Week, it is perhaps timely to take stock of two very different Australian realities.

On the one hand, it is indisputable that Australia has a long tradition of welcoming and successfully resettling refugees.

We know that over many years, refugees have made great contributions to our economy, culture and social fabric. We know that we are all enriched by the life experience and diversity that they bring to our communities.

On the other hand, it is a sad fact that in Australia tonight, more than 5000 asylum seekers and refugees will be going to bed inside detention facilities, gated off from our communities.

Over the past few years the number of people being held in immigration detention has increased significantly. And they're being held for long periods of time. It is sobering to note that almost 70 per cent of those in detention have been detained for longer than six months. Almost 30 per cent have been detained for longer than 12 months.

It is easy to forget amid all the figures and political point-scoring that the vast majority of these people have come to Australia to seek asylum. They have come to seek our protection, and most of them are found to be genuine refugees.

In Australia, many genuine refugees are detained for long periods of time in one of the strictest immigration detention regimes in the world. There's no time limit on how long they can be detained and they are not able to challenge the need for their detention before a court.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has been monitoring conditions in immigration detention facilities for more than a decade and in the past year has visited facilities on Christmas Island, in Darwin, Leonora, Villawood and Curtin.

We've spoken in private with very large numbers of people in detention.

We've heard about and seen first-hand the very debilitating effects of prolonged detention on people's mental health.

And what we can say categorically is that many people in detention are suffering deteriorating mental health.

In recent months, there have been five apparent suicides in immigration detention. There have also been many disturbing incidents of self-harm across the immigration detention network including attempted hangings, lip-sewing, ingestion of chemicals, people cutting themselves and voluntary starvation.

People in detention are frustrated and distressed because they are detained for long periods of time without any idea of when they might be released or what will happen to them when they are. Their frustration and distress are compounded by the very long periods of time that people are separated from their families.

We are holding extremely vulnerable people in detention for lengthy periods, including survivors of torture and trauma. It is well known that it is not possible for a survivor of torture or trauma to begin to recover while they remain in detention and that detention itself will cause more harm.

We know this from bitter experience. We must not forget that there are people in our communities who are still damaged from their experiences in detention up to 10 years ago. Our government is still paying compensation to people whose human rights were not protected while they were in immigration detention at that time.

There are alternatives to prolonged and indefinite detention. They have been tried and tested in Australia and elsewhere.

I acknowledge the positive step of moving large numbers of families and unaccompanied minors into community detention in the past six months. The Minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen, has approved the placement of more than 1300 families and unaccompanied minors in community detention. This is a significant achievement, removing large numbers of people from harmful detention environments. At a minimum it should be broadened to include in greater numbers other vulnerable groups such as survivors of torture and trauma and people with mental health concerns.

Community-based alternatives can be cheaper and more effective, and are certainly more humane than holding people in immigration detention facilities for prolonged periods. We encourage the government to use all viable alternatives, including both community detention and bridging visas.

In Australia, we have a relatively small population of asylum seekers, most of whom should be able to be live in the community while their applications are assessed.

Under the government's own policy people are not meant to be detained for the duration of their processing. They should be detained only for initial checks. Once these are done and there is no evidence they are a risk to the community they should be released.

Many of the people currently in detention will be found to be refugees and will come to live in our communities.

They, like the many thousands of refugees before them who Australia has welcomed, will make significant contributions to life in Australia.

We have a responsibility to ensure that asylum seekers and refugees are not irreparably harmed as a consequence of lengthy periods in immigration detention in Australia. It would also be in our best interest to do so.

Catherine Branson, QC, is president of the Australian Human Rights Commission. This article is based based on the annual Foundation House Oration to be delivered by Ms Branson in Melbourne tonight.

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The following opinion pieces have been published by the President and Commissioners. Reproduction of the opinion pieces must include reference to where the opinion piece was originally published.